The age of the Ecumenical Councils is a very distinctive time period in Orthodox Christian history. In this time period church governance, liturgy, doctrine were all standardized. The thinking of this time period has often been treated by later generations of Orthodox as normative – the means by which Orthodoxy is to be measured. The Councils adopted not only the official Creed of the Christians, they also adopted a wide variety of canon law which oversaw how the Church came to be structured, rules for dealing with church disciplinary problems, and theology itself. The age of the Councils was a very theologically active period in the history of the Church. There were numerous serious debates and divisions within Christianity centered on the questions of: Who is Jesus? How did he save us? How can the witness of scripture support both a notion of monotheism and God having a son?
These issues were central and crucial to the Christian self understanding. The debates raged for almost 600 years, but the Eastern Christians believed that with each debate and decision they were coming ever closer to possessing the mind of Christ. It was their conviction that right belief led to a right way of living and behaving. Thus being Orthodox (Ortho is Greek for right or correct, and dox originally came from dokein, thinking; later dox also meant glory or worship) meant to think or worship in the correct manner or to hold the right opinion on issues of theology.
In this same time period, Christianity underwent other changes as well. The Church became the dominant religion of the Empire. The Byzantine’s self understanding and mythology caused them to accept as unquestionable that their beliefs and practices were normative for all Christians. Eventually they came to see their empire as in some way the kingdom of God on earth. They attempted to Christianize the symbols and rituals of the empire. They saw no separation between church and state: the laws of the empire were blessed by the church, the decisions of the church were enforced by the empire. Officially they termed the relationship between church and state as “symphony” – a symphonic cooperation between the two gifts of godly authority. The two headed eagle was symbolic of this cooperative relationship between church and state. Despite this symphonic vision, the church leaders and emperors were often at odds, and Byzantine history is strewn with the wrecks of bishops and emperors who lost the battle to keep the balance between church and state.
In the next several blogs I will be looking at the comments of Orthodox saints, contemporary Orthodox scholars and some non-Orthodox biblical scholars, regarding their ideas of how to read and study the Scriptures. I return to the theme of the very first blog in this series that the Bible is a Treasury, which we open to discover the riches of God’s love and power.
“Reading the Holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure, you see, anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise in the case of Sacred Scripture, you can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought and immense riches. The Word of God is not only like a treasure, but is also like a spring gushing with everflowing waters in a mighty flood… our forebears drank from these waters to the limit of their capacity, and those who come after us will try to do likewise, without risk of exhausting them; instead the flood will increase and the streams will be multiplied.” (DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, p 48)
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) is part of the Antiochian “School” of Patristic writers. Relatively speaking, they were not as attracted to an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures as were the saints of the Alexandrian “School” of the Patristic age. Their focus was on accurately discerning the precise meaning of Scripture and they often rejected a purely allegorical reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, the Antiochian School saw the Scriptures as containing God’s revelation to the world, and as such understood the biblical texts to be deep and rich with the revelations and hidden mysteries of God. The texts are not merely human texts, though they were written by men inspired by God. Their true content is the revelation of God Himself, which is why the meaning of the scriptural text might be much deeper than its most obvious meaning.
“The Apostle says: ‘The letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6). Those are killed by the letter who merely wish to know the words alone, so that they may be esteemed as wiser than others and be able to acquire great riches to give to their relatives and friends. In a similar way, those religious are killed by the letter who do not wish to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but only wish to know what the words are and how to interpret them to others. And those are given life by the spirit of Sacred Scripture who do not refer to themselves any text which they know or seek to know, but , by word and example, return everything to the most high Lord God to Whom every good belongs.” (St. Francis of Assisi, FRANCIS AND CLARE, p 30)
Knowing the Scriptures for Christian saints throughout the ages are not for only the learned and biblical scholars. One memorizes and lives by the Bible, not to impress others with one’s education, nor to get others to think highly of you, nor to become famous and sought after for one’s erudition. One learns the Scriptures to order one’s life, to live the evangelical life, to know how to be a disciple of the Son of God. In the Patristic Age, congregations were to take note of those who knew the Scriptures by heart – this was evaluated not by how many verses they could spout from memory, but by how they lived their lives. This is how a bishop candidate might be recognized: have they memorized the Psalms. It was not that the man who wants to be bishop should go about memorizing Psalms, but when the community recognizes that a man truly has the Psalms in his heart that one recognizes who the episcopal candidate should be. It is a lifetime pursuit of knowing God’s Word that is a sign of one’s commitment to Christ.
This pursuit of the knowledge of God’s Word was not just for those interested in becoming priests or bishops. St. Jerome (d. 420 AD) wrote in his day about the widow Marcella:
“And because my name was then especially esteemed in the study of the Scriptures, she never came without asking something about Scripture, nor did she immediately accept my explanation as satisfactory, but she proposed questions from the opposite viewpoint, not for the sake of being contentious, but so that by asking, she might learn solutions for points she perceived could be raised In objection. …whatever in us was gathered by long study and by lengthy meditation was almost changed into nature; this she tasted, this she learned, this she possessed.” (quoted in READING SCRIPTURE WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 44)
Those who learn the Word of God, who hide it in their hearts, become formed by that Word, they become living icons of God the Word in their lives and life styles. This is the goal for every Christian, not just those few who choose to be professional Christians, namely the paid clergy and hierarchs.
Allegory is an interpretive way to read a biblical text in which things in the text stand for or mean something other than what they literally are. The New Testament uses allegory as one means to interpret the Old Testament. For example St. Paul writes in Galatians 4:22-31, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. … Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now. … So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” In the text Paul interprets the real women Hagar and Sarah to stand for two types of covenants; he interprets the real persons, Hagar and Sarah, to mean something other than just being two women. This method of interpretation does not deny the literal meaning of the text, but says there is a deeper meaning if you read the text with the right understanding. If you take the time to study Paul’s allegory, you realize it is quite complex, and far beyond that to which the plain reading of the passage leads. Because the New Testament does use allegory in interpreting the Old, it has been considered by Christians an acceptable interpretive method for other texts as well. It was abuses of allegory in interpreting scriptures which caused many Reformers to reject it as a legitimate method of reading the Bible. Some feel the Reformers reaction is an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
“…whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures. Some of the Fathers, it is true, attack what they call allegory and its use; but what they are attacking are the results (particularly the results that Origen came up with) and not the method. … Even the Antiochene Fathers admit of a deeper spiritual meaning (which they call not allegoria but the ‘contemplative’ meaning—kata theorian). … the idea that the text means what the author meant it to mean—the idea, almost, that the meaning of a text is a past historical event—give us a sense that the meaning of a text is something objective, something unproblematic. … (Augustine) takes it for granted that the meaning of a text is what the author intended (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 96-98)
For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa in looking at a passage from Genesis, writes:
“But let us, if we may, interpret the meaning of the sacred history (Gen 12:1-4) according to the profound insight of the Apostle (Hebr 11:8-10) by transposing the story to an allegorical level, even though we allow the validity of the literal meaning.” (FROM GLORY TO GLORY, p 119)
St. Gregory claims in allegorizing to simply be following the pattern of interpretation already established in the Scriptures themselves. That texts within the Scriptures are reread and re-interpreted and given new meaning can be seen in how St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 makes use of Exodus 17:1-7.
St. John Chrysostom, who like many in the Antiochian school of biblical interpretation, downplays allegory in interpreting Scriptures acknowledges:
“We ourselves are not the lords over the rules of interpretation, but must pursue scripture’s understanding of itself, and in that may make use of the allegorical method.” “This is everywhere a rule in Scripture: when it wants to allegorize, it tells the interpreters of the allegory, so that the passage will not be interpreted superficially” (Brevard Childs, THE STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND ISAIAH AS CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE, p 106)
Chrysostom’s claim that the Scriptures are clear about when allegory is needed to interpret the text is not so obvious in St. Paul interpreting Exodus mentioned above, nor in 1 Corinthians 9:7-11 or 1 Timothy 5:17-18 where St. Paul takes Deuteronomy 25:4 (a completely straight forward passage which seems certain to be read literally) and gives it an entirely new meaning.
Genesis 11:5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
“So the LORD scattered them abroad” Not only does God create confusion among the humans by creating many different languages, He also scatters them abroad as He did to Eve and Adam by expelling them from Paradise. Now God scatters the human from proximity to each other, moving them far apart so that they are separated both by language and geography which will soon give birth to cultural separation as well. God who originally blessed the humans to fill the earth, now scatters them in such a manner that they will be pitted one against the other. And instead of subduing the earth they will turn instead to subduing each other.
“…the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…” The scattering of humans across the face of the earth and the rise of diverse languages will bring an end to the universal nature of the story unfolding in Genesis. Furthermore, humanity will lose its oneness and unity of focus after this event and become scattered not only geographically but also in terms of goals and agenda. Although the story has paid special attention to one lineage of people, it still has generally been the story of all people, of any people, of humanity and of being human.
At this point in the story however Genesis will cease being the story of all humanity and will concentrate its focus on the man Abram, toward whose birth the narrative was leading, and on his descendants. Now the story is to become God working out His plan for the salvation of the world through Abraham and the Jewish people. But the scattered people of the world will be reintroduced into God’s story at the Nativity of Christ: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2). With the arrival of the Magi, we have the beginning of all the nations and people of the world realizing that they are indeed part of the promise to Abraham and are to be recipients of God’s special favor. God promised Abraham, “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Genesis 22:18). The Magi lead all the nations of the earth to come to worship Abraham’s descendent and to enter into the eternal promise of God.
This scattering of people as an act of God in Genesis 11 contrasts with the more natural spread of the growing human population described in Genesis 10. This is certainly indicative of there being more than one “source” contributing to the Scriptures. The final editor of the Scriptures places both stories side by side in the Bible. He doesn’t try to harmonize the stories nor did he choose between them. Neither should we. The final editor of the text accepts both versions – contradictions and all – as inspired by God. So should we. But what lesson are we to learn from the fact that texts with contradictions and inconsistencies get accepted into the Scriptures? One possible lesson is not to read these verses purely literally. Perhaps their true importance lies somewhere other than in the plain reading of the text. As many Patristic writers suggested, the text is telling us to dig deeper beyond the literal – don’t reduce this text to a history lesson, it is about God’s revelation. Seek out that deeper and more important meaning. Our work is to interpret the scriptures we have received, not to change them or ignore them or to eliminate their challenges and mysteries.
Some speculate that in the modern world there is a new single language which is uniting humanity together. It is the language of mathematics, which is the same in every culture and tongue. It has a logic which is not based in any one language but is universally recognizable. And it is sometimes said that the universal language of mathematics which dominates conversations around the world is closely linked to two other phenomenon. First there is the Internet which is based in computers which are completely based in the language of mathematics. The Internet has made global conversations a reality. The Internet whose foundation is in mathematics makes it possible for the humans to again work for a common language for the world. The other phenomenon related to math is finances and economics. It appears in the 21st Century world that one form of economics – capitalism – dominates the language of commerce. It is the bottom line which determines so much about what we think of things. Will math, the Internet and capitalism – the modern trinity unifying humanity cause some in the world to create a new Ba’bel? God has not forbidden humans from using their brains, but it has been His desire that knowledge will lead us back to Him.
Kalaitzidis contends that Patristic Theology emerged by the Patristic theologians engaging their culture – Hellenism. If we acknowledge that we now live in a different culture – post-patristic and post-hellenic – then is simply parroting the Fathers sufficient for engaging our culture? If the purpose of theology is not “to preserve a certain era, a certain culture, a certain language” but rather “to serve the truth of the Gospel and the people of God in every time, in every space” then Orthodoxy must incarnate its theology today in response to the culture and time we live in. This is a very active engagement with culture, not avoiding culture by satisfying ourselves with parroting Patristic writers.
“After all, God’s revelation has always taken place within creation and history, not in some un-historical, timeless universe unrelated to the world. As the late Greek theologian Panagiotis Nellas, founder of the well-known theological journal Synaxis, prophetically noted twenty-five years ago: ‘… it is not possible today to have a true Revelation of God without employing as the material for that revelation today’s social, cultural, scientific and other realities. It is impossible for God to motivate man unless He comes into contact with his particular, historical flesh; it is not possible for Him to save man, unless He transfigures his life.”
“Thus, the Church and its theology cannot move forward in the world while ignoring or devaluing the world that surrounds them, just because this world is not ‘Christian,’ or because it is not as they would like it or the sort of world that would suit them. Similarly, the Church and its theology cannot motivate the people of today, the people of modernity and late modernity, so long as the modern world continues to be scorned and disparaged by the Church, and ignored as revelatory material and flesh to be assumed.”
“…today the wind of traditionalism and fundamentalism is once again blowing violently through the life and theology of the Church. Eschatology is an active and demanding expectation of the coming Kingdom of God, the new world which we await; as such, it feeds into a dynamic commitment to the present, an affirmation and openness toward the future of the Kingdom in which the fullness and identity of the Church is to be found. In other words, the Church does not derive its substance principally from what it is, but rather from what it will become in the future, in the eschatological time which, since the Resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, has already begun to illuminate and influence the present and history.”
“In the light of eschatology, even the tradition of the Church itself acquires a new meaning and a different dimension — an optimistic and hopeful perspective. In this perspective, Tradition is not identified with habits, customs, traditions or ideas or in general with historical inertia and stagnation, but with a person, Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory who is coming. As Saint Cyprian of Carthage reminds us, “The Lord said: I am the Truth. He did not say: I am the custom.” Tradition, in other words, does not refer chiefly to the past; or to put it differently, it is not bound by the patterns of the past, by events that have already happened. Strange as it may sound, in the authentic ecclesial perspective, tradition is orientated toward the future. It comes principally and primarily from the future Kingdom of God, from the One who is coming, from what has yet to be fully revealed and made manifest, from God’s love and the plan He is preparing for us, for the salvation of the world and man. So the eschatological understanding of tradition appears as the counterpart to the Pauline definition of faith: ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1. cf. Heb. ch. 11; Rom. 8:24), or as analogous to the eschatological or ‘future’ memory as this is experienced in the Anaphora Prayer at the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom: ‘Remembering therefore this saving commandment and all that has been brought about for our sake: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the ascent into heaven, the sitting at the right hand and the glorious Second Coming.’ And this is because, according to the scholia on the Areopagitic writings attributed to St Maximus the Confessor (but whom scholarship now identifies as John of Scythopolis), the entire Divine Liturgy represents not some eternal heavenly archetypes or some reality in the realm of ideas, but the eschatological Kingdom which is to come, a reality of the future where the truth of things and symbols is located.”
“Therefore, just as it is the last things that give being to the first things, and eschatology to protology, so it is the Kingdom of God —the fullness of life and of truth which will come to completion and be fully revealed at the eschaton— that defines and gives meaning to the tradition of the Church. The future is therefore the cause and not the effect of the past, since, according to Metropolitan John Zizioulas, the reason for which the world came into being is the eschatological Christ as the union of created and uncreated in the eschatological times.”
“Or, to recall the apt words of the late Greek theologian Nikos Nissiotis: so the Tradition of Orthodoxy […] is not history but witness; it is not the completed and fulfilled event of past centuries, but the summons to fulfil it in the future […] Tradition as it has been understood from the very Beginning is the ‘new’, that which erupts into the world in order to make all things new once and for all in Christ, and then continuously in the Holy Spirit through the Church.”
“Looked at from this angle, then, Tradition is not the letter which kills, a nostalgic repetition or uncritical acceptance or continuation of the past, but a creative continuity in the Holy Spirit and an openness to the future, to the new world of the Kingdom of God which we await.”
“The future is not merely something exacted or awaited – it is something created … And genuine historical synthesis lies not in interpreting the past, but in creatively fulfilling the future.” (Fr. George Florovosky)
”…one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
I found the article by Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis Director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, “From the ‘Return to the Fathers’ to the Need for a Modern Orthodox Theology” in Volume 54, Number 1 2010, of the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY to be one of the most uplifting and exciting articles I have read in years (I haven’t used the word exciting with an Orthodox writer for a long time!).
Orthodoxy’s efforts to define itself by adopting an absolutist and oppositional attitude Western Christianity has caused the Orthodox to become exclusivist and even sectarian, despite proclaiming in the creed a belief in a universal/catholic church. “Oneness” in much of current Orthodox interpretation of the Creed has come to mean not One universal church of all those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, but a sectarian view of a never pure enough remnant whose major task seems to be not just to stand against those who don’t measure up but even to expel as many people from the fellowship of Christ as is possible. Kalaitzidis notes:
“The consequences of this ‘return to the Fathers’ and the subsequent overemphasis on patristic studies were, among other things: (1) the neglect and devaluation of biblical studies; (2) an ahistorical approach to patristic theology and a subsequent exaltation of traditionalism;(3) a tendency toward introversion and Orthodox theology’s near total absence from the major theological developments and trends of the 20th century; (4) the polarization of East and West, and the cultivation and consolidation of an anti-western and anti-ecumenical spirit; and (5) a weak theological response to the challenges posed by the modern world and; more generally, the unresolved theological issues still remaining in the relationship between Orthodoxy and modernity.”
In a sense what the Patristic Revival in Orthodoxy has devolved to is a parroting of the Fathers, rather than understanding them and how and why they came to the conclusions they did in their day and age. The Fathers actively engaged their culture and time, today in Orthodoxy we assume that simply repeating the Fathers ought to be a defense against the modern age. The Fathers did not simply parrot the Scriptures, they interpreted and used them with authority, as Christ Himself had done in His lifetime (Mark 1:22). Kalaitzidis says this occurred because “Patristic theology was mythologized” – or perhaps even worse we treat the words of the Fathers as some kind of magic against the dark powers of modernity: simply by repeating their words we assume the truth will be established in hocus pocus fashion. Kalaitzidis says we have lost sight of the history of the battles that took place to adopt the language of the Patristic age.
“Today, we have come to regard that encounter as self-evident, forgetting the titanic battles that preceded it. Perhaps we are unaware or fail to notice how difficult and painful it was for primitive Christianity (with its Jewish and generally Semitic roots and origins) to accept and incorporate Hellenic concepts and categories such as nature, essence, homoousion,hypostasis, person, logos, intellect, nous, meaning, cause, power, accident, energy, kath’holou, cosmos, etc. But this ahistorical approach to patristic theology is in fact a ‘betrayal’ of the spirit of the Fathers inasmuch as it betrays and ignores the very core and essence of their thought, i.e., a continuous dialogue with the world, and an encounter with and assumption of the historical, social, cultural, and scientific context of their time…”
The end result of this process is that the Orthodox by invoking the Fathers for every problem we face has simply created a “patristic fundamentalism” exactly like the biblical fundamentalism Orthodox reject, including an endless proof texting of the Fathers. Passages and quotes are totally removed from their context and put in collections of sayings that are treated like magic. No longer do the Orthodox feel the need to study, wrestle with or interpret the Scriptures for now all they have to do is read quotes from the Fathers which become the Scriptures for Orthodox. Orthodoxy today sometimes behaves as if it is a house which must keep its doors shut and blinds drawn on its windows so as not to see the world, yet somehow hoping the world will be attracted to the house by its strangeness. It is also why I found Kalaitzidis’ article so exciting: he is opening the blinds and the doors and telling us Orthodox to take a good look at ourselves AND to see the world around us.
Kalaitzidis wrote: “Orthodox people content themselves with theory, and make no progress or fall tragically short when it comes to practice; that we prefer to ‘contemplate’ and ‘observe’ rather than to act…” I found this statement to resonate with the Orthodox of Russia, especially as I listen to the lectures, A HISTORY OF RUSSIA: FROM PETER THE GREAT TO GORBACHEV, by Professor Mark Steinberg. For decades crossing centuries Russian tsars and noblemen discussed reform and freeing the serfs without doing anything about it. It all seemed to be exercises in philosophy with no changes being brought about. The lack of reforms though allowing decades of discussions on such topics contributed to the Bolshevik revolt simply sweeping aside those who had no intention of changing anything.
I intend in this blog and the next to offer a few quotes from Robert Hill’s READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH and to give some commentary on them. Hill is perhaps the leading translator into English of Patristic writers in the Antiochian tradition, such as Theodoret of Cyrus and John Chrysostom. I am ever grateful to him for making so many texts available in English which I would otherwise not have been able to read. I have read so many of his translations which he so richly annotates that I feel as familiar with his writings as with the Fathers themselves. Hill offers critical notes to his translations, taking the position that modern scholarship offers a standard for understanding the biblical texts against which the Fathers must be compared, and often not favorably. While I appreciate his comments and the insight they give into the Patristic writers, I must admit that I read the Fathers precisely because they are not modern scholars. I am ever intrigued with what use they make of the biblical texts a thousand years before the Reformation and the Enlightenment came to dominate and define the issues of biblical study. Their assumptions and the fact that they could insightfully read Scripture with none of the tools, concerns or information of the modern scholar make them particularly valuable to me because they help free Scripture from modern prejudices and interpretations. We are forced when reading the Patristic commentaries on Scripture to see the Word of God from a viewpoint outside the limits of our own experience.
I sometimes wonder whether Hill misses the point that the very reason the Orthodox today so love the Patristic writers is because they are not post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment. They offer us the worldview which shaped our Tradition in antiquity, and thus they offer us some glimpse into the timelessness of God’s Word. However, Hill does at one point acknowledge why Chrysostom and the Fathers are not much interested in the modern scholarly obsession with textual analysis:
“Their deep conviction of the divine inspiration of the authors of Old Testament books, prophetai, was also generally … a deterrent from scrutiny into diversity of authorship and layers of composition of these letters sent by God and delivered by Moses or David; the history in a text was of greater relevance than the history of that text.”
In other words the Fathers were more concerned with God’s revelation than they were with the mechanics and history of how God chose to deliver His message. They were in fact believers! They accepted that the Scriptures were inspired and to be read as revelation from God even though they come to us through human intermediaries and have a history of their own. All Scripture is inspired by God – it is of the Holy Spirit and thus not corrupted by who actually inscribed it. Theodoret comments regarding the fact that some Psalms may have been written by someone other than King David,
“…but I for my part have no strong view on these points: what does it matter to me whether all come from (David) or some come from them, as long as it is clear they all composed under the influence of the divine Spirit.”(p 80)
The Antiochian Fathers read the Old Testament as if
“God communicated his revelation through a process of omilia (my note – homilies! – discourses) in which could be seen a gracious gesture of sygkatabasis (my note – divine considerateness) akin to that visible in the Incarnation of the Word in the person of Jesus.” (p 85)
God speaks to humanity on our level, in ways and through people that we can understand. He does this because He loves us and wants us to understand Him. This results sometimes in later generations experiencing some confusion and even doubt about God when reading texts written for an early time and thus written more concretely; for example when God in Scriptures takes on anthropomorphic characteristics, He does this not because He is a male or a human but because that is the only way the humans long ago could relate to Him, but later generations sometimes read these early revelations too literally.
“The Scriptures, like the Incarnation, come to us as a gesture of divine considerateness, sygkatavasis—a loving gesture with nothing patronizing about it, nothing to suggest ‘condescension’ … The Incarnation, after all, does not represent a patronizing gesture on God’s part towards human beings—only love and concern.” (pp 36-37)
I finished reading Robert C. Hill’s translation of THEODORET OF CYRUS: THE QUESTIONS ON THE OCTATEUCH Vol 1 GENESIS AND EXODUS and decided to offer a few quotes from the book. Theodoret was the bishop of Cyrus who died about 457AD. He received training in the Antiochian tradition for Christian interpretation of the Scriptures and wrote extensive commentaries on the books of the Old Testament. Theodoret’s commentaries are important because they give us some insight into how Christians in the 5th Century were interpreting the Bible. This is insightful because it shows that not even in the ancient Patristic writers insisted that the Scriptures must be read only literally.
Regarding the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures Theodoret though a serious historian when reading the Scriptures warns against an overly literal reading of the Bible especially regarding those passages in the Old Testament in which God is described in human (anthropomorphic) images.
“These simpletons fail to understand that the Lord God, when speaking to humans through humans, adjusts his language to the limitations of the listeners. Since we see with our eyes, he refers to his power of vision as ‘eyes.’ He refers to his power of hearing as ‘ears,’ since it is through these organs that we hear, and to his command as a ‘mouth.’” (p 51)
Theodoret writes about Scripture as God “speaking to humans through humans.” In this phrase he acknowledges that we receive God’s revelation mediated through the authors of Scripture. This is important because it shows that He understands the Word of God to also be a product of human work – there is a synergy with God using a human intermediary in addition to human language and images to convey His message to the world. Additionally he speaks against any literal reading of the text in which it anthropomorphizes God – such language, Theodoret says, is strictly for our benefit and because of our human limitations in understanding things abstract or divine.
At another point, speaking about Moses who Theodoret accepted as the author of Genesis, he wrote:
“Why did the author (i.e., Moses – my note) not first set down the true doctrine of God before relating the creation of the universe?
Holy Scripture normally adapts the contents to the learners… Since the Egyptians used to worship the visible creation, and Israel, in their long association with them, had joined in this idolatry, he had to set out the facts of creation and explicitly teach them that it had a beginning of existence, and that the God of the universe was its Creator. … Those he was teaching, however, had already learned of the eternity of God. When the divinely inspired Moses was sent into Egypt by God, he was commanded to say to his fellow, ‘He Who Is has sent me to you.’ Now, “He Who Is’ conveys eternity, and it will be obvious to the attentive that that statement was made before the teaching in this chapter. He taught them the former while they were still living in Egypt but composed this chapter in the wilderness.” (pp 7-9)
In this passage we see that Theodoret does accept Moses as the author of Genesis – Moses, not God, actually wrote the text down. Theodoret rhetorically asks why didn’t Moses begin with a systematic theology – give a scholarly explanation of who this “God” is before launching into what God did? His first answer again has to do with writing something that the Israelites could understand – they weren’t prepared for pure theology so Moses prepares them for it by writing narrative. Obviously Theodoret believed Moses had a choice in what he wrote or how he wrote it. Moses was inspired by God to write, but Moses under the influence of the Holy Spirit had to make choices about what to write. The divine-human synergy is real to Theodoret; Moses is not merely an instrument of God’s actions – Moses co-operates with God and uses his free will and human creativity to accomplish what God wants him to do. And Theodoret does not have Moses composing the Genesis creation story before becoming their leader in Egypt. Rather, Theodoret clearly says that Moses composed the creation story after the Exodus while the Jews were in the desert. So the creation story by Theodoret’s understanding is written after the Passover – after God wrought His salvation for His people. Only after experiencing God’s salvation does Moses compose for the people of God an explanation about how the world came into existence in the first place. (see also my blog The Literal Value of Genesis regarding the modern scholarly opinion that the creation narrative of Genesis was probably written down and became Scripture only after the Babylonian captivity of the Jews).
Later in his commentary, Theodoret reminds his flock that Scriptures contain many different genres of literature and that the reader must pay attention to not only what is being read but also who in the Scriptures is speaking.
“The distinctive features of Scripture are the oracles of the Spirit, God’s laws, and the teachings of the devout; the rest is historical narration. So one must take into account not only what is said but also who says it.” (p. 173)
In other words sometimes Moses may be the mouthpiece for God and is giving voice to God’s Word. At other times, Moses is simply the historian who is humanly reporting what the humans were doing. The reader of Scripture must pay attention to these distinctions in order to properly understand “the Word of God.”
In discussing the origins of the word “Hebrew” Theodoret concedes no one answer can be offered with any absolute certainty. So he advises: “No point, however, in squabbling over this: no harm is done to religion, which ever opinion we adopt.” (p 129) He thus holds to the notion that some questions which might rise as a result of reading the Scriptures may be worth pursuing to a degree, but ultimately the answer makes no real difference to the true faith. Further, commenting on Genesis 15:9, “Theodoret offers several interpretations and then concludes: ‘I cite this view and the other for readers to take whichever strikes them as closer to the truth.’” (p 139) He actually allows for the fact that in some cases several interpretations of a text are possible, all of which can be correct. In such cases he leaves it to the reader to decide which interpretation is correct. This works for him whenever a main point of doctrine is not at stake. He does not demand absolute uniformity in interpretation nor does he believe that each text has one and only one possible and correct interpretation.
“… since the nineteenth century. The fundamentalist reader and the modern biblical scholar using historic-critical methods are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. They are concerned with the Bible as fact, as real history; so the focus is on the truth behind the text, the exact reference of the words and narratives. Compared with early Christian interpretation, this is earth bound, literalizing – a physical or material approach. The patristic authors consistently show how the words point beyond themselves, how the Bible is really about transformation about change, about the conversion of the reader. It is not the material or physical that matters but the spiritual. Difficulties in the text, inconsistencies or impossibilities, the aporiai (to use the acient Greek word …) were put there specially to provoke the reader into seeking deeper insight, into search for the skopos or intent of the Holy Spirit. They were able to develop a creative use of the Bible, rather than a defensive or aggressively dogmatic use, because they began with the idea that the Bible points beyond itself.” (p29)
In other words the Patristic writers were not as interested in a literal reading of the text if that literal reading did not aid the reader in discovering God’s true plan and purpose. In other words, if reading the text literally does not help the person understand God’s plan and salvation in Jesus Christ then one is missing the most important aspect of the text. Most of the Fathers even when they read the text allegorically assumed this was the way the text was to be read and so was the true literal reading ofthe Scriptures. By literal the Fathers often meant the deepest meaning that the text contained and that we are meant to comprehend – what could be found in the words of the Scriptures.
For the Fathers if the literal reading of the text only led to reading the text for “facts” then the text was in fact obscuring the truth – for that Truth is Christ one of the Holy Trinity not one mere fact among countless millions of bits of data. The Fathers did not equate the facts of the text with the Truth, but rather saw the facts as a limited form of the truth. The real breakthrough comes when the believer in reading the text is led beyond the facts in the text to the spiritual Truth about God and the cosmos. The Scriptures are our way to Christ who is the incarnate Word of God, not just our way into the words on a page and a few facts about life.
Basically Young sees both fundamentalism and the historic-critical method as being in search of simple historical facts while forgetting the Truth behind and beyond the literal words. In some sense this is true because they both have accepted the rationalism of the Enlightenment which concluded that the only truth worth knowing is impirical truth – the facts that science can uncover. This accepts a very materialistic view of the universe – not only is there nothing like truth beyond the facts of science, there is no meaning to the world so one can only study the facts which is all that exists. For believers this is a very reductionistic way of seeing the universe because it means we seek facts at the expense of Truth or, in other words, we can fail to see the forest because of all the trees.